Last night, a couple of stories from the Tony Awards started circulating on social media. The first and most surprising to me was that the award show cut the presentation of a lifetime achievement award for one of the finest actors of the stage and screen of my time, James Earl Jones, and that appalled me.
The second news item was that Delta Airlines and Bank of America pulled their sponsorships for the Public Theater’s production of the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar, due to the director’s decision to use a Donald Trump look-alike as Caesar. If you recall from your school days or the movie adaptation, Caesar is stabbed to death by Roman Senators in their effort to keep Rome from being ruled by an Emperor. From what I read in the New York Times article, the depiction of the assassination of Caesar (Trump) is rather graphic, so after a campaign in the media, both companies chose to end their financial support.
That doesn’t surprise me in the least. Businesses have their reputations and their stockholders to consider, and being connected to such a questionable and politically motivated performance is not something they need to be connected to. These are businesses that provide services in all parts of the country, not just the more liberal anti-Trump coasts, and they really can’t afford to drive off half of their customers.
As I continued following the tweets and posts, I read a great many comments crying foul, particularly from many of my associates in the development field in the nonprofit sector. Some cried censorship, bemoaning the lost financial support as a way to silence the theater and director, infringing on the First Amendment Rights of Freedom of Expression. What those people fail to understand is that a sponsor, like any other donor, has a right to stop supporting an organization for any reason, but especially if the organization does something that can create controversy and go against the beliefs of the donor or business. The sponsors are not denying the theater company the right to express their beliefs, but are simply using their right not to support the manner which the Public Theater expresses its vision.
Controversy and politics can have a deleterious effect on nonprofit organizations, and the Public Theater should have been aware of the potential risks. Remember a few years ago, when Komen decided not to renew financial support for Planned Parenthood because of a potential Congressional inquiry? That ended up costing the breast cancer foundation millions in support, even after they backtracked on their decision. What about the time an employee of an organization posted a picture that appeared to be disrespectful to those buried in Arlington National Cemetery? It cost the employee her job and her employer financial support from donors. You read stories like these all the time, unfortunately.
Honestly, I think the Public Theater will survive and will find support from other sources. There are many businesses and philanthropists that share the director’s vision and dislike for President Trump who will step up and replace the lost funds. It might take some effort, but it can, and probably will be done.
My only hope from all this is that nonprofits learn this valuable lesson: If you court controversy, realize that not all supporters can or will continue to support you, and they will leave. It is their right as donors, and they are using their freedom of expression to let you know you may have gone a bit too far.